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Emotions and the Psychology of Having Mixed Reactions

Quick! Is ice cream good or bad?

Okay, I will grant you that that was a weird question, but hopefully it gave you insight into how you make judgments and think about your opinions. If you’re like most people, it took you a second to make a final call about ice cream.

A lot of our opinions aren’t clear-cut cases of “good” vs. “bad.” Sure there are things that you might say are obviously just good (e.g., flowers), and there are things that you might say are obviously just bad (e.g., The Real Housewives of Orange County).

But most of the time, things are a mix—like ice cream! On the one hand, ice cream tastes great and gives you something to look forward to in the summertime. On the other hand, the heavy use of cream and sugar make ice cream less-than-healthy. So is it good or bad? How do you decide?

New research has looked into this question, and using some innovative techniques, it’s revealed one key to the puzzle. Basically, when deciding whether something is good or bad, people tend to rely on their emotional reactions.

Before we look at this new research, let’s take a look at an important concept in psychology: ambivalence.

The Psychology of Mixed Reactions

eggs-390212_640webAs we just saw, opinions aren’t always a clear case of good versus bad. When your opinion contains a mix of positive and negative reactions, your opinion is ambivalent. People often misuse this term; they use it to mean “not caring,” but it’s really about having a mix of good and bad. Think about how “ambi” means “both” (like ambidextrous) and “valent” means “good or bad” (like having high or low value).

Psychologists have long been interested in the topic of mixed reactions. One common finding is that ambivalent attitudes are often associated withfeeling conflicted,” which can be pretty uncomfortable. That feeling of being conflicted can motivate people to look for answers and figure out what the “right” opinion is.

Also, as you probably experienced when I asked you to make a “good” vs. “bad” call about the topic of ice cream, ambivalence makes it harder to make a two-sided decision. When researchers ask people to quickly make good/bad judgments, people are slower to make those judgments when the topic is relatively ambivalent.

Making the Final Call

So how do we deal with ambivalent opinions? After all, at a certain point, we’ve got to make a call—are we going to eat the ice cream or say no? Are we going to vote for the political candidate or not? Will we buy that new cookbook or not?[1]  I struggle with this one more than I care to admit.

Before we get to the new stuff, there’s one more thing worth mentioning about how our opinions are structured: many of our opinions are based on some combination of emotional reactions and deliberative thoughts and beliefs.

This ice cream example is really working for me, so let’s just stick with it. On the one hand, some of your opinion is informed by emotional reactions (e.g., it tastes good and makes you happy). On the other hand, some of your opinion is based on more calculated thoughts and beliefs (e.g., it is unhealthy and could give you cavities).

It turns out that these two kinds of bases for your opinion can help you make the overall “good” vs. “bad” judgment. Recent research has shown that people tend to default to whichever judgment is more consistent with their emotional reactions. In the case of ice cream, it means that we’re prone to call it “good” because that’s the judgment that our emotions lead us to.

More specifically, these new studies looked at the words people use to express their opinions, paying careful attention to whether those words were positive (e.g., “great”) or negative (e.g., “awful”) and whether they were pretty emotional (e.g., “dreadful”) or not so emotional (e.g., “beneficial”).

They looked at how people used these words for a bunch of different topics, ranging from “classical music” to “pollution” to “roller coasters.” Overall, though, when it came to saying whether they “liked” or “disliked” each topic, people tended to rely on their emotional reactions, even when there were strong non-emotional reactions pulling them in the other direction.

Going with Your Gut

Although this new research cemented the relationship of emotionality within ambivalent opinions, it’s consistent with previous work that has shown how emotion helps people resolve their ambivalence about political candidates. Still other research has shown that especially for pretty extreme opinions, our emotional reactions come to mind more quickly than our more calculated reactions.

In all, this research gives us a new understanding of our opinions and the powerful role that emotions can play in our judgments. So even when we have well-reasoned beliefs that something is bad, we might still be swayed by our emotions…and start chasing the ice cream truck as it drives away from our apartments.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1.   I struggle with this one more than I care to admit.

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